FEAR Branch

About one-third of Victoria, or about 7.1 million hectares, is publicly owned native forest.

Under Section 50 of the Forest Act, it was possible for the Forests Commission to set aside reserves, usually for recreation or the conservation of natural features.

In 1957 the area covered by this provision was quite small being only 700 ha, with the exception of Mt Buller at 1710 ha.

But by the mid-1950s it became evident that community attitudes to forests and conservation were beginning to shift.

In 1958 the Commission set aside Lake Mountain and Mt Baw Baw reserves. And over the next 10 years, the number of reserves increased to 81 with an aggregate area of 17300 ha.

In 1968, Sir William (Blackjack) McDonald, a local pastoralist and Minister for Lands controversially announced a new rural settlement scheme which involved the clearing of remnant Mallee woodlands and then selling Crown Land in the Little Desert.

An unlikely alliance of farmers, agricultural experts, economists, suburban activists, politicians, scientists and conservationists including the local District Forester Bill Middleton, banded together to oppose McDonald’s plan.

The Age Newspaper was fiercely critical and ran reports and editorials opposing the proposal for many months.

A surprise electoral backlash over the Little Desert plan against the Bolte Government in the May 1970 elections, where McDonald also lost his safe Liberal seat, laid the foundations for the formation of the Land Conservation Council (LCC) later in 1971.

The poorly-conceived Little Desert scheme was eventually consigned to oblivion, but it proved a watershed moment and is often considered to mark the beginning of widespread environmental awareness and activism in Victoria.

The Forests Commission, now under the Chairmanship of Dr Frank Moulds, responded swiftly, and in 1970 the Forest Environment and Recreation (FEAR) Branch was created to give greater focus to the multiple use of State forests.

FEAR Branch was an innovative idea and other state forest services around Australia soon followed.

By about 1973, the area set aside in forest reserves had grown to 56000 ha.

By 2013, about half (4 M ha) was set aside as Parks and Conservation Reserves with the other half (3.1 M ha) as State forest.

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